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What we’ve learned about the record drought scorching the West

Low water levels are pictured in Echo Reservoir north of Coalville on Thursday, May 6, 2021.
Low water levels are pictured in Echo Reservoir north of Coalville on Thursday, May 6, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Las Vegas is banning “nonfunctional” grass.

Lake Mead hit its record-low level, threatening water supply for millions.

Utah’s governor is encouraging yellow lawns as the new normal.

The news reports are clear: The West is in an historic drought.

According to The Associated Press this week, a new Nevada law will outlaw about 31% of the grass in the Las Vegas area in an effort to conserve water amid a drought that’s drying up the region’s primary water source, the Colorado River.

Cities and states around the U.S. have enacted temporary bans on lawns that must be watered, but legislation signed by Gov. Steve Sisolak makes Nevada the first in the nation to enact a permanent ban on certain categories of grass.

The Southwest relies on two major reservoirs on the Colorado River to keep water flowing to the arid region: Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But the surface elevation of Lake Mead along the Nevada-Arizona border dropped to 1,071.56 feet — it’s the lowest level since Lake Mead was filled in the 1930s and which was matched in 2016

“We’re expecting the reservoir to keep declining until November, then it should start to rebound,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patti Aaron told the AP Wednesday.

The Colorado River supplies 40 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming as well as a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry. But already in Arizona, farmers in Pinal County south of Phoenix have had to stop irrigating their fields because of the cutbacks in water from the Colorado River.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has already issued three drought emergency declarations, cutting lawn watering at state facilities. He’s asked other cities and counties to do the same, and some like Salt Lake City already have. Cox also wants residents to find ways to cut down on water usage.

Here’s what we’ve learned of the situation so far:

Baby, it’s dry outside — How the drought is affecting Utah: The U.S. Drought Monitor puts 90% of Utah in the category of “extreme drought” and says that more than 2.7 million people in the state are impacted.

What do people think should be done to save water? Some irrigation companies are taking punitive measures a step further this year, warning of penalties as high as $5,000 and a loss of 10 water turns if users flagrantly break the rules and are using water outside their allotted time slot.

If you think the weather’s been the driest you’ve seen in your life, you’re right: The summer of 2020 was the driest ever logged in Utah and Nevada since record keeping began 126 years ago, and this year hasn’t been any better.

One congressman says ‘we are a special kind of stupid’ when it comes to drought: Some GOP members of Congress say it is federal and state policies that are the main culprit behind the unprecedented drought gripping the West, not just the weather.

Love, hope, worry, fear as Lake Powell drops: The steep vertical drop in water levels at Lake Powell is recontouring the lake, stranding launch ramps, and adding to the fears of boaters — while brightening the hopes of those who would like to see the lake permanently drained.

Utah governor bans fireworks on state lands, orders more watering cutbacks amid severe drought: Yellow lawns will likely be the norm for the summer as Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issued his third water restriction in four months on Tuesday with the state suffering under unprecedented drought conditions.

Why Utah lawmakers are worried about having enough water in the future: Utah lawmakers say drought and the dwindling Colorado River make it more important than ever for the state to act now to safeguard its interest in the river.